A recent ban on commercial solariums has seen many turning to backyard operations, ignoring the cancer risk. By Max Opray.

Backyard solariums creating a dangerous market

Deanna tells me she hesitated before climbing inside. “I had to ask if they’d cleaned it,” she explains, queasily. “It wasn’t too bad I guess.”

At the salon she used to visit every week, the 21-year-old Adelaide student never had to worry about the hygiene of her solarium bed – it was thoroughly wiped down after each customer. Lately, however, Deanna has had to get her UV hits from a less reputable source.

On January 1 commercial solariums were banned in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, after a raft of studies confirmed indoor tanning was a particularly carcinogenic way to pass the time. According to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, sunbeds are responsible for an average of 43 melanoma-related deaths and 2572 new cases of squamous cell carcinoma every year in Australia.

Commercial use of these machines was banned, yet home use was left legal, so it didn’t take tanning addicts such as Deanna long to join the dots and hook themselves up to Australia’s newest black-market sector. These backyard solarium businesses risk a fine of up to $10,000 in South Australia, while the penalty climbs as high as $44,000 in NSW. Regulations aside, it is an expensive business anyway, considering the heavy electricity demand of sunbeds and the installation of the three-phase power systems they usually require.

Despite all that, Deanna had a plethora of options to choose from. She attracted several invitations in response to a post she made to online classifieds website Gumtree, but opted in the end for a place promoted by a friend on Facebook. On arrival, things were different to the salon – no more complimentary face towels, goggles and sunscreen, no consultant tailoring a solarium regimen to Deanna’s skin complexion. Crucially, there were no more time limits placed on her ultraviolet roastings. With prices much higher than what she was used to, Deanna opted for a pay-per-minute arrangement, although she was tempted by packages of unlimited-length sessions, starting at $125 for 10 appointments.

“I used to feel a lot safer going somewhere serviced and monitored,” she says. The solarium industry wasn’t exactly renowned for adhering to safety guidelines, but at least the rules were there. Now operators are being guided by the invisible hand of the black market, dangerously unregulated and obscenely overpriced.

There’s a wide variety of home-based enterprises popping up, from the sunbed owners who swap tanning sessions for other services, to the rather more sophisticated offering of the Sharelarium, a slick new multi-bed facility that is planning the introduction of direct debit membership fees. The operation even boasts an Instagram account with more than 400 followers, and a website domain name that was registered at the start of February.

At the place she frequents, Deanna self-imposes a time limit of 10 minutes, but worries that others won’t employ quite the same level of restraint. She says her friends who used solariums before the ban are all switching to private property sunbeds, although some are waiting for the sunshine shortage of wintertime.

I spoke to a dozen other people who had placed Gumtree advertisements seeking backyard solariums. Like Deanna, most were young and female, and all claimed either themselves or their friends had visited such establishments. Sarah (not her real name), a 25-year-old registered nurse, is one of the ones waiting for winter. As a regular worker of 12-hour shifts, she uses sunbeds to top up on vitamin D during the darker months, which she believes eases the symptoms of her Crohn’s disease. “I know a place through a mutual friend – I’ll book an appointment when I need it,” she says.

Others are planning to save up and buy a bed themselves, and while suppliers of new machines have reported a pre-ban spike in sales, plenty of second-hand machines are up for grabs as well, given hundreds of solarium businesses no longer have a legal use for their machines. South Australia was the only state not to introduce a buyback scheme in tandem with the ban, but salons across the country have chosen to sell privately rather than take up less lucrative government offers. The NSW Environment Protection Authority tells me its $1000 buyback price has seen only 52 beds destroyed since mid-2013, well short of the state’s commercial total of 254. Queensland offered a staged buyback scheme that started at a more enticing $5000 before dropping to the same level, while Victoria offered $2000 before June 30, 2014, falling to the NSW price thereafter.

Christine Butcher, co-owner of Tan Ezy in South Australia, says she wouldn’t have been tempted by a buyback scheme as offered in the eastern states. She is flogging her nine machines off at an advertised price of $12,000 each, and has already sold four of them. While she was showing me around her shop to see the machines not yet taken, a customer came in and asked to book a session. Christine tells me that even two months after the ban, people are constantly asking her for covert solarium sessions.

“Even on my personal Facebook page, which isn’t attached to my business whatsoever, I’ve had random people seeking me out specifically and sending me messages asking, ‘Can I please come in for a session, I’ll give you whatever money you want,’ ” she says. “It’s been crazy.”

Before the ban and in partnership with the Australian Tanning Association, she hired a lobbyist to put the industry’s case to the South Australian government in the hope that a compromise of tighter regulation could suffice. She was dismayed by what she says was a dismissive response. Since the ban, she’s had to let three of her five staff go, and is sad to have to do the same with the machines.

“They’re like my babies,” she says of the sunbeds. “I will keep one at home, though, and I’ll use it for the rest of my life.”

The experience apparently isn’t going to get in the way of her passion for controversial products, however. Christine is switching over to the booming e-cigarette industry.

Vanessa Rock, chairman of Cancer Council Australia’s National Skin Cancer Committee, notes that the most recent National Sun Protection Survey – conducted over the 2013-14 summer – indicated less than 1 per cent of adolescents and 1 per cent of adults had used a solarium during a period of 12 months. She suggests, therefore, it is unlikely home solarium use will grow significantly from such a low base. The Cancer Council strongly backs the ban, and in its position statement on solarium use cites a study published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2011 that, according to the council, found one in six melanomas in Australians aged 18-29 years “would be prevented if solariums were shut down”. This same figure popped up in a range of health body and government minister press releases in the lead-up to the ban.

The trouble is, the study didn’t actually investigate the practical outcomes of a solarium ban – it merely assessed the danger of solarium use. What it found was regular solarium users appeared six times more likely to be diagnosed with melanoma before the age of 30, and that 16 per cent of melanoma cases of those aged 18-29 would be prevented by avoiding sunbed exposure. Compelling reasons not to use a solarium, yes, but by no means a projection of what would realistically happen should commercial solarium beds be outlawed. 

University of Sydney senior research fellow Dr Anne Cust, one of the study’s authors, says that on balance the ban is good policy anyway, as it will reduce the overall exposure of the wider population. She concedes it won’t stop everyone, however, and backs mass media campaigns to continue making progress in winning hearts and minds. “We need to change behaviour norms so people don’t think it’s good to get a tan,” she says.

Several of the people hunting solariums online who spoke to me mentioned they were considering melatonin injections, which present their own significant health risks. If these injections fail to catch on, and even if backyard solariums are successfully crushed by a crackdown, there’s always the old-fashioned way to get skin cancer.

Dr Ivanka Prichard of Flinders University is currently running a study that actually does analyse whether the commercial solarium ban will reduce melanoma incidence.

 “Our previous studies have told us that appearance is a strong motivator for people to tan, so we have to question whether people will simply replace solarium use with more time in the sun, which will have little impact on Australia’s skin cancer rates,” she says.

Her findings are yet to come, but if they conclude former solarium customers are merely switching to the sun, state governments might wish to prepare themselves. Banning the sky is going to take some doing.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 28, 2015 as "Blue-light districts".

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